Sample Story from Unit One Writings: A Token of the Holly King
A Token of the Holly King
By William Hecht
Weekday afternoons at two o’clock, he began to look for her. Each time the little bell sounded to announce that the door to Ye Olde Coffee and Tea Shop had been opened, he would turn his head. As three o’clock grew near and brought with it the possibility that she wouldn’t arrive that day, he began to resent the other customers who instead appeared in the door at the sound of the bell.
He imagined that she must have begun working at one of the neighborhood shops in mid-November, and that she probably arrived at work in late morning and took a break in the afternoons. Though it was nearly Christmas and she visited most weekdays, he hadn’t yet collected the courage to strike up any conversations or make inquiries into her personal life. She had always come in alone.
Shortly after two o’clock, the little bell had rung while he had been hunched down below the countertop to put away some coffee urns. When he straightened up, she was at the counter, poised and static like an apparition. He nearly lost his breath and was sure she noticed his surprise. She wore a matching knitted hat and scarf of the color that only women and artists seem to identify properly—magenta or something. She pulled off her hat. Her hair was brown and under the fresh light of the counter it shone with auburn highlights. She unconsciously gathered and smoothed it with her fingers–this to serve order rather than vanity.
She wore little or no makeup, but on this day, having walked a block or two into the cold December wind that rushed along the streets, her otherwise pale cheeks sprouted twin patches of color very close to that of her scarf and hat. Her light eyes and half-smile acted upon him as a subtle bit of sorcery as she prepared to place her order.
Her name was Brigid “with a ‘d.’” At least that was the name she gave them to call out when her drink was ready. She always asked for hot water and lemon–which he gave her free of charge, despite her offers to pay. She routinely put several coins in the jar where they pooled the tips. She brought out her own little bag of tea and sat at one of the small tables against the wall when those seats were unoccupied. She often pulled a book from her shoulder bag and read while she sipped her tea.
She appeared healthy and not overly thin, but she seemed so austere or even severe to him at times, he worried that she wasn’t getting enough protein or nutrition. He couldn’t decide if she might be discretely frail or unsuspectingly strong. It was difficult for him to determine her age as well; her bearing implied a worldliness that would have come with age, though her smooth skin allowed that she could still have been in her twenties. He doubted she had children or had ever been married.
Today, he had come out from behind the counter and delivered to her the small dispenser of water and the cup and saucer with lemon. After she politely thanked him, he noticed the title of the book which she had already brought out of her bag. It was a thin paperback book, smaller than most and worn. It was The Celtic Twilight, and he was impressed with himself that he recognized the author’s name–William Butler Yeats.
He decided to strike up a conversation.
“That‘s an interesting book you have there, “he said. “I see it’s by Yeats.” Are you an English major?”
She nearly smiled as she explained. “No. My mother gave it to me. My parents are from Ireland, so we’re always reading the Irish writers. Are you a reader?” she asked.
“Well, I took some English classes in college,” he explained. “We read James Joyce in one of them.”
She affirmed his mention of Joyce by raising her eyebrows a little, then considered a response.
“Here,” she said, turning the book toward him on the table and opening it to the introduction. “Read this. Just read the last two sentences.” She held her finger upon the proper starting place for him.
He bent over the book, now suddenly close to her, and read.
…Hope and Memory have one daughter and her name is Art, and she has built her dwelling far from the desperate field where men hang out their garments upon forked boughs to be banners of battle. O beloved daughter of Hope and Memory, be with me for a little.
Having finished the passage, Clark considered it to be beyond his understanding for the moment. He was sure that it held a profound insight, but her very imposing austerity or virtue—whatever it was, compelled him to be honest about it.
“I would have to read it again,” he explained. “It sounds amazing.”
“I would lend it to you, but it’s not mine,” she said.
“Well, thanks for telling me about it,” he said nervously. “I’ll look it up on the internet.”
“By the way, my name’s Clark,” he added.
“I know,” she said. “I hear people call you that here.”
“And you’re Brigid with a ‘d,’ he said more confidently.
“Yes. It’s a traditional name. Kind of a Celtic goddess,” she said lightly.
“Well. . . Let me know if you need more hot water,” he said.
“Thanks, I will.”
He nodded and smiled and went back behind the counter. He had never heard so much of her voice before! And he secretly thrilled that she had allowed him across an important threshold in their rapport. Her chair faced the counter, so he tried to act naturally and nonchalant in going about his duties. He felt it important not to look in her direction if it could be helped.
She smiled and said “Goodbye.” As she left and from the moment the little bell by the door sounded to punctuate her departure, Clark spent the rest of the shift wondering what rapture might ever exist between them. He had dated enough girls and women over the years, but none of them had seemed to contain the magical mix of austerity and frailty and strength and discretion that Brigid represented. He worried that he hadn’t the stature and intellect for her. He managed the coffee shop, but he had only studied at a small state college. He hadn’t been to Europe and had only been to Canada once. Against the standards of the men who brought dates and lovers into the coffee shops, he imagined himself somewhere just above the middle in looks, but somewhere closer to the top in thoughtfulness and loyalty; he considered most of his best qualities to lay dormant and un-summoned, his noblest nature as of yet unrealized. He now wondered if Brigid might embody the catalyst and cause that could propel him to be an exceptional man, or even a minor local hero.
That evening after he closed the store, Clark used the computer in the back office to investigate the book by Yeats. He made a romantic and vigilant figure in the glow of the computer screen as he searched for Celtic Twilight, and the related topic of Celtic legends and folklore. He thought of presenting Brigid with a special gift to celebrate the season. He wondered how he could do it without being too forward, without revealing himself as an admirer.
During one search, he found a story that stemmed from Celtic tradition. It was called the Legend of the Holly King and the Oak King. He read how the Holly King had to battle the Oak King at Winter Solstice and how the Holly King would lose this battle and cede care of the land to the monarch of Spring and Summer. But the Holly King would make battle again at Summer Solstice and win, to reign again for six months. He concluded, somewhat impulsively, that his gift would have to center around this legend. He now had to decide whether she was the kind of woman who would prefer the Oak King, who presided over the renewal and rebirth of the world, or the Holly King, who held court during the fullness and the harvest. Clark had already preserved in his memory the image of Brigid as she appeared earlier that day at the counter, freshly spared from the cold Northern winds and safe at the hearth of Ye Olde and Coffee and Tea Shop. In his mind, the bright red berries of the holly branches came closest to matching the red of her cheeks earlier that day. He expanded his researches and identified a local nursery that sold small, potted holly plants.
Clark smiled to himself in the glow of the monitor as a new image formed in his imagination. He pictured Brigid in her usual spot at the table against the wall, smiling genuinely and revealing more of her mysterious being to him as she accepted the clay pot of Holly shrub, berries included, as a token of the season and as a symbol of affections yet unknown and yet to grow.
[In the course of a class I taught, I learned a little about the Celts and the priest class thereof, the Druids. I am part Irish and identify with the culture—very specifically in their reverence for the Arts. The Irish combine for me the personality and hospitality—the warmth and charm—I see in members of my family on my mother’s side, but also the intensity about learning and culture that makes Art a serious business. Of course Clark is a romantic. I know Clark.]